A principal barrier to our coming to sense our vocation which is God’s call to meaning and purpose in life is that distance between our dreams of purpose and meaning and the actual world of work. If as Dorothy Sayers comments work is not primarily a thing one does to live, but the thing one lives to do – then many of us are destined to lives of frustration. The world of work is just not like that we complain, and in many ways it isn’t.
The world of work in human society is always in need of structural change. At times recently it seems that the forces that fragment us, exploit us, discriminate and entrench inequalities, oppress us to a state of perpetual fear seem to be winning. There is a need for both structural and moral change to enable people to realize through their work a sense of value. Change comes when human beings challenge the status quo. That challenge comes through a larger resistance to the forces that dehumanize our common life. Although resistance is daunting though not impossible on one’s own, fruitful resistance requires solidarity. I define solidarity as mutual reflection. Solidarity is where our own resistance, our refusal to accept things just as they are, is mirrored back to us by others as we mirror resistance for them. Maybe initially this is our calling – our vocation to resist dehumanizing forces, but to resist from a place where we have a sense of being in community – in a network of multiple relations that tie us all together as a site of resistance. This is a rather modern way of describing what Benedict did in his world. The Rule comes out of an experience of vocation – the search for meaning and purpose in a shared life of relationships in community.
I am not a political or social analyst. I am a catholic priest of the Anglican Tradition. This tradition, so powerfully shaped by the Benedictine experience understands the presence of the Kingdom of God in the values of gratitude, generosity and commitment to service. These values are acted upon and placed center stage within networks of mutual relationships. Our human relationships model the life of God not only within the Trinitarian nature of God’s self but also in the relational nature of a God who is deeply, relationally present in the world.
For me spirituality is deeply shaped by an understanding of human individual and group psychology. The principal barrier to vocation – being called – is fear. While the structures of human society are always in urgent need of challenge. So too are the structures of our own inner worlds. These are the forces of greed as in a need to acquire material protections, aggression as in the need to compete, insecurity as in the need to win approval often at another’s expense, narcissism as in the need to control our own destiny through mastery over tasks, events and relationships as if we are the only person who matters, fear as in the urge to fight as well as fear as in the urge to flee. God’s call to us confronts our internal worlds as much as it is a call to challenge the societal state quo where so much of our work generates so little sense of being of value for us. Our internal fears dominate us and become the prism that distorts our true nature and identity. Unchecked, and unworked upon these dynamics powerfully present in our internal worlds, or as Jesus would have said in our hearts. These become the aspects of human nature that we uncritically mirror to one another in relationships marked by greed, competition, exploitation and fearfulness of the other.
The world of work is changing. Social commentators like Richard Florida in his recent book The Great Reset: How the Post Crash economy Will change the way we live and work point to a future where making a profit and maximizing production efficiency will need to depend on the quality of the workers experience. The quality of the final product will depend to some extent on the quality of the production experience for the workers. Here he contrasts companies like Walmart who exploit low paid and non-benefited workers and Best Buy where workers are encouraged to develop knowledge and use knowledge based skills in quality circles to enhance the quality and efficiency of the service provided. Improvement feeds promotion and quality of benefits. But the chief benefit from a Benedictine angle in the Best Buy model of retailing is the quality of the workers sense of value and meaning the enhancement of a sense of call.
Does a closer look at Benedictine spirituality offer the real possibility that we can make work a friend of the soul? The Rule ensures that we control our cynicism in the face of frustration. It counsels working at becoming mindful of the need to balance starting with stopping in order to become ready for what is next. In short to develop an attitude to daily life of listening, responding and becoming transformed within a network of mutual relationships that support resistance to the forces that dehumanize, both external and internally driven.